Oscar Nominees 2013: Alexandre Desplat’s Score for Argo

This is the first in a series of six posts on the 2013 Oscar nominees for Best Original Score. The first five posts will discuss each of the nominees individually, and the sixth post will give my prediction for the Oscar winner and my reasoning behind it.


Alexandre Desplat has been scoring Hollywood films for the last decade, ever since Girl with a Pearl Earring back in 2003. In that time, he has scored nearly forty films, seven in each of the past two years alone. Besides being one of the most prolific composers in the business, he is also one of the most versatile as he has written for such diverse films as Julie and Julia, The King’s Speech, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Given that he also scored Syriana, it is no surprise that he was asked to provide the soundtrack for Argo since both are political thrillers about the Middle East.

Desplat’s score for Argo is an interesting fusion of music from the West and the Middle East, something he achieves through combinations of four main components: a Middle Eastern sound, atmospheric music, a pop music influence, and a traditional orchestral sound. These components blend in various ways depending on the content of the scene. After briefly describing each component, my film music analysis will demonstrate how Desplat employs them in three scenes.

Style of the Score

The Middle Eastern Sound

Desplat attempts to create an authentic Iranian atmosphere in the music, especially through instrumentation. Several cues make use of such Middle Eastern instruments as the ney flute, the kemenche (a small bowed instrument played upright in one’s lap), the oud (a lute-like instrument), and various Middle Eastern drums. The many vocals in the score enhance the Iranian flavour of the music, especially the female style of wordless melodies of several long notes. But there are other vocal techniques such as tongue clicks and wordless vocal sounds (by males), as well as short, quick breaths between notes (by females). In addition, many of the score’s melodic snippets are based on the very Middle Eastern sounding “Fraygish” scale (or Phrygian dominant scale), which, starting on A, goes A-Bb-C#-D-E-F-G-A.

Here are some examples of these instrumentations:

Ney flute

Female wordless melody

Male wordless vocalizations

Atmospheric Music

Much of Desplat’s score consists of long bass notes called pedal points or pedals. Because pedals are a part of both Western and Middle Eastern music, it is a clever device for blending aspects of the two together—this is one of the fascinating things about Argo’s score. Over these pedals, there is very little melodic activity. Accordingly, there are very few motifs that could be called themes in the traditional sense as the music over the pedals is usually a sustained note or snippet of melody that adds to the colour of the score through its instrumentation and use of the Fraygish scale. This atmospheric style of music is the most pervasive type of scoring throughout Argo.

Hear an example of this type of music from Argo below. (Though note that in the soundtrack album, Desplat always adds a melody that could be called Argo‘s main theme. For soundtrack albums, cues are usually abbreviated and arranged in a new order rather than being complete and chronological. The idea is that listeners enjoy the album more when it is treated as an entity unto itself.)

Pop Influence

There are a few ways that the soundtrack is influenced by pop music. First, there are many cues in which a percussive rhythm is repeated in a series of loops, a common technique in pop. There are also some instruments that are electronically generated, especially the low bass notes mentioned above. And finally, the score is electronically manipulated to a high degree with much reverberation and at times a complex overlapping of separate musical layers. This pop influence certainly adds more to the Western sound of the score.

Here’s an example (combined with Middle Eastern sounds):

Traditional Orchestral Sound

Despite his heavy reliance on Middle Eastern sounds in his score, Desplat does not completely eschew the traditional symphony orchestra. When he employs the orchestra in its pure form, he writes a lyrical melody in the strings supported by warm brass chords underneath. Since this technique is very typical of Hollywood film scores, it strongly emphasizes a Western, and more specifically American, sound when it appears in Argo.

Here’s an example:

Scenes from the Film

Main Title and Introduction

The opening of the film immediately establishes the Middle Eastern setting of the film as we hear a ney flute play a fragment of melody. But more importantly, the bass enters right away on a low E that is sustained as a pedal point for all of the main title and introduction. Because the music sounds mainly this pedal point with indigenous Middle Eastern instruments, the sound of the score is very much toward the Middle Eastern side of the spectrum at the film’s opening, which is appropriate given we are shown a brief history of the events in Iran leading up to the hostage crisis at the American Embassy.

Mendez Visits the Secretary of State

This brief scene provides acts as a transition as Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) travels from Hollywood to Washington, D.C. The basis of the music here is a loop in the bass guitar, brushed snare drum, and a Middle Eastern drum. An electric guitar overtop of this repeats the motive A-A-G-Bb-A, which derives from the Fraygish scale on A (see above). As the film transitions into the next scene, two slow orchestral string chords are heard. Thus Desplat combines aspects of both Western and Middle Eastern music, a fitting tactic given that the American Mendez is hatching a plan to travel to Iran and rescue the six American hideaways.

The Climax

At the climax of Argo, Desplat takes advantage of the difference between the Western and Middle Eastern musical elements to indicate which side—American or Iranian—is in control of the situation. After Mendez and the six hideaways, posing as a Canadian film crew, have been given clearance to board a plane to Toronto, they are shuttled to the plane by a small bus. At this point, the Iranian airport authorities are informed of the film crew’s true identity and a tense chase begins. At the start of the chase, when we see the Americans on the shuttle bus, the music sounds long notes in the strings supported by a faster repeated-note string accompaniment and an electronic bass and percussion loop. The music therefore suggests that although the Americans are in the process of getting away, they are nevertheless filled with fear and uncertainty.

As the Iranian authorities finally break through the door to the runway, Middle Eastern drums and percussion are introduced into the mix—perhaps the Iranians will apprehend the Americans after all. The scene alternates between the two groups, American and Iranian, and the music reflects this by alternating between the Western strings and the Middle Eastern percussion. As the Iranians frantically drive down the runway after the moving plane, the Middle Eastern drums come to the fore, then the oud is added as well. Although the Americans are in the plane and about to take off, the music increases the feeling that the Iranians could very well capture the hideaways and thwart the entire rescue mission.

The plane finally achieves liftoff and the music falls silent. Why? Because the plane is still within Iranian airspace and so is still within their jurisdiction. Will it be ordered to return to the airport, or will the plane be able to continue to Canada? The lack of music appropriately declares no winner. It is only when the flight attendant announces that the plane has cleared Iranian airspace that music returns. And the music we hear is the traditional Hollywood scoring of a lyrical string melody with string and brass accompaniment. Hence, the music reinforces the feeling of a joyful American victory by banishing any hint of Middle Eastern music and leaving only a lush American sound.

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